as if being 12 3/4 isn't bad enough, my mother is running for president! by Donna Gephart, 227 pp, RL: Middle Grade

Donna Gephart's debut novel for young readers, as if being 12 3/4 isn't bad enough, my mother is running for president, winner of the 2009 Sid Fleishman Humor Award which is presented by the Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators, caught my eye the minute it hit the shelves.  Photos of  kids, especially where you can see their whole face, are rare in the world of kid's books these days, even books set squarely in the realm of realistic fiction.  Also, the girl on the cover has an understated look of annoyance, mistrust and an "are you kidding me?" expression that really clicked for me.  And main character Vanessa Rothrock has all that and more.  Not only is she smart - as a participant in the local and then regional spelling bee, Vanessa is a habitual speller of words which makes for some spectacular vocabulary in this book - but she is funny.  All kinds of funny - self-deprecating, dopey, unintentionally.  The one kind of funny she is not, though, is funny at someone else's expense, and I value that greatly.  Besides the perks of humor and vocabulary, Gephart weaves some nice little civics lessons into her book, as well as an actual brief tutorial from Vanessa herself at the end of the book with some great links to websites that offer more information about government, elections and spelling bees!

With Vanessa as narrator, we get terrific insight into her thought process and emotional ups and downs.  Vanessa's story begins shortly after her mother, the sitting two-term governor of Florida, wins the Iowa caucuses in January and ends with her accepting the Democratic nomination at the convention in Philadelphia in July.  After the caucus win, Vanessa is given a personal body guard, Mr Martinez, and she has to learn to deal with more public attention than what she already gets as the governor's daughter, which is excruciating (Excruciating. E-X-C-R-U-C-I-A-T-I-N-G. Excruciating) since she is a klutz, courtesy of her size 9 shoe, among other things, (as she says, "I frequently embarrass myself by tripping over air molecules") she has frizzy hair and her mom is busier  and more unavailable than ever.  In fact, after winning a spelling bee that her mother was unable to attend, a bee that she wins by spelling the word "deficiency," Vanessa begins to ponder her personal deficiencies, even making a list. The list is overseen by Reginald Trumball, her crush, who takes the opportunity to tease her mercilessly about her number one entry on the list:  "1. Boobs the size of cherry pits. (If life is a bowl of cherries, why are my boobs the pits?)"

Vanessa thinks about her breasts a lot. In fact, she frequently makes wishes that she hopes the Boob Fairy will hear and does some supposedly growth enhancing exercises.  I know that breast size is a concern for some girls, but is never was for me.  I was at the opposite end of the spectrum always trying to hide what was going on with my body in that region, so when this sort of concern pops up as a personality trait I am always a bit dumbfounded - much in the way that I, as a 5 foot tall person,  cannot imagine why anyone would complain about feeling tall.  But, Gephart uses this (perceived) deficiency of Vanessa's to great comic effect, and even pulls off a great one liner from Vanessa's mom on the subject.  Also, Vanessa's focus on her breasts is a great way to illustrate the tunnel vision about themselves that kids of this age seem to have.  This makes it a little easier to relate to Vanessa's griping and worrying and unhappiness about the way campaigning is taking her mom farther and farther away from her.

Gephart does a fabulous job making Vanessa seems like a rounded, real character, and she does an equally good job making Governor Rothrock seem both real and authoritative in her roles as mom and high ranking politician.  She has real gravitas but at the same time you get little glimpses into her as a mother.  When Vanessa is angry at her for not being there when she breaks her wrist at school and is rushed to the emergency room, she tries to talk to her daughter, to explain, to empathize, but Vanessa won't let her.  Gephart allows her to express her frustration and anger at not being able to be there for her daughter, not being able to connect with her when she is there because Vanessa is now angry with her, and she walks out to the room and slams the door.  Even though she is a politician, a woman running for president, a person with a high powered career and a role model for all girls reading this book, she is human and real and I applaud Gephart for this depiction, for not making Governor Rothrock a superwoman who can do it all.  Kids may not notice this as they read the book, but as a parent this is the kind of character I would want my daughter to read about.

Dramatic as a mother-daughter relationship can be, the real suspense in the book comes from the the drama of being a public persona and a presidential candidate and the child of one.  While Vanessa is receiving secret love notes in her locker at school, she also begins to receive threatening hate notes telling her to stop her mother from running OR ELSE.  The notes also instruct Vanessa not to tell anyone the danger will only escalate and spread.  Vanessa rips up the first note without telling anyone about it and carries the burden of this knowledge alone.  Understandably frightened, especially since she already lost her father in an airplane crash, she begins to try to think of ways to get her mother to drop out of the race.  Again, I have to compliment Gephart's writing here.  While the loss of a parent to a child is obviously an event of serious impact, Gephart does not make it a major thread of the plot.  Initially, Vanessa refers to her father here and there and it becomes clear that, not only is he not in the picture, he has died prematurely.  By the middle of the book, when Vanessa is coping with the threat to her mother by herself, we learn more about her loss and her grief when she removes a special box from a hiding place in the closet.  Filled with tangible memories of her father, the reader almost learns more about his death, but Vanessa isn't ready to cope with it and the box goes back in the closet.  Later on, when she is really in need of parental support and nurturing, the box comes out again and the reader learns a bit more.  Mostly, though, these scenes highlight how alone Vanessa is.  Gephart manages to end the book on a happy note and with a very satisfying willingness to compromise on both sides.

Despite the serious nature of the previous paragraphs, this is a really funny book and light at heart.  Kids will read it and laugh and love it and love Vanessa, a multilayered character with interesting quirks.  In fact, Gephart is on the faculty of the New England Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators 25th Anniversary conference that meets in May of 2011 where she will be giving two workshops on writing humor and creating quirky characters.

Gephart's newest book is How to Survive Middle School.  And, in the Spring of 2012 we will be treated to Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen, a book about a girl who's dream is to appear on the game show Jeopardy!

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